12 years old and moving forward: UMBI’s coming of age
By Professor Datuk Dr. A Rahman A Jamal
On the 1st of July 2015, UMBI will be exactly 12 years old. In human terms this is an important milestone in growth and development. Despite it young age, UMBI is a ‘senior’ institute in UKM. It has been quite a journey full of challenges and tribulations. There have been sweet successes too. It was not by chance that UMBI was given the task to spearhead a national project, The Malaysian Cohort, by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation in 2005. UMBI was visible then and the MOSTI wanted a research institute which has the capability to lead the project. The team made it one of the most innovative cohorts by adapting technologies such as a paper-less questionnaire and internally developed information systems management including the geographical information system (GIS). The Cohort Biobank which contains biospecimens from 106,527 participants is now the largest biorepository in the nation, and in South East Asia. The paper published in the top ranking International Journal of Epidemiology highlights the key baseline data from the Cohort (Jamal et al, 2014).
We also went to space in 2006-2007. Well not exactly flying up there, but we sent proxies in the form of the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, in 2006 and then cancer cells and bacteria in 2007 to the International Space Station. Most space experiments take 3-5 years to plan and execute but the Malaysian team (which included scientists from other universities) had only 18 months to do everything. There may not be any more local angkasawan in future but UMBI is doing its part to sustain the interest in space science. We now have the microgravity laboratory equipped with a desktop random positioning machine to simulate microgravity. This is a national laboratory jointly funded by the National Space Agency and the only one of its kind in Malaysia.
We are now very well settled in the new building which is the pride of UKM and the envy of many. We have acquired the latest HiSeq 3500 system which can sequence 6 whole genomes in 3.5 days! We also have the MiSeq, Ion Proton and Ion Torrent Personal Genome Machine systems. Our Genome Sequencing Centre is now the best-equipped centre in Malaysia and we welcome researchers from outside UKM to come and use the equipments. These platforms are vital as the practice of medicine moves into the era of genomics medicine where genomic data is used to improve diagnosis, classification, prognostication and tailor individual therapies. This precision or personalised medicine approach is revolutionising medicine in the developed nations. UMBI certainly can take the lead here although we need the appropriate funding to run the deep sequencing analysis for tumours, rare diseases and Mendelian disorders. UMBI is already positioning itself in this exciting field of genomics medicine.
We now must continue to do good research and focus on quality output. We have made cancers and non-communicable diseases as the primary focus of our research. It is a challenging and competitive ocean to be in. There are the ‘blue’ spots in terms of our rich ethnic diversity as well as unique phenotypes of diseases which we can focus on. UMBI has also consolidated its collaboration with the departments at the Faculty of Medicine UKM and now have joint research projects with the departments of surgery, psychiatry, paediatrics, medicine, public health and ophthalmology. We also have joint research projects with Faculty of Science and Technology, Faculty of Health Sciences, Institute for Microengineering and Nanotechnology and also Institute of Biology Systems.
We shall continue to nurture the wonderful talent we have and bring in new talent into UMBI. At the same time we should retain our stars too. Our students who have graduated have successfully gained employment. A good number are grabbed by the industry even before they submit their theses. There have been dropouts as well, but this is the nature of research and science. We also hope to bring in more clinician scientists (those with MD and PhD) to enhance the translational research component in UMBI.
We shall also continue to engage the community. We celebrated the World DNA Day on the 23rd April 2015 (for the 4th time) and as usual brought 150 secondary school students to spend a day in UMBI learning the science and applications of DNA. We have also launched a colorectal screening programme for the community around the Cheras area. We provide free kits for faecal occult blood tests and those positive will be offered a colonoscopy at the UKM Medical Centre at only RM200 (this will cost RM5000 or more in a private hospital)! Colorectal cancer is now the commonest cancer among males in Malaysia. We are also planning an intervention program in FELDA for those with impaired fasting glucose or pre-diabetes. We want to do our part to reduce the burden of diabetes in the nation.
As the director, I believe that we are on the right track on achieving our vision to use discovery science and the omics-based technologies and translating it to improving health. Our focus on cancer and other non-communicable diseases makes us relevant to the key health burden facing the nation. My personal vision for a game changer is for UMBI to form a consortium with other research institutes and undertake a 100,000-genome project for Malaysia focusing on cancers, other non-communicable diseases, rare diseases and pathogens. Certainly, a journey of a thousand miles has to start with a single step and UMBI has taken a good number of steps forward. Happy anniversary to all!